South African Airways PriestmanGoode

“South African Airways is a great example of subtle branded elements throughout the cabin,” says Luke Hawes, director at PriestmanGoode. Image via PriestmanGoode

APEX Insight: In the fourth installment of our series on holistic design, Daniel Baron of LIFT Strategic Design and Luke Hawes of PriestmanGoode explain how aircraft cabin materials help stitch together an airline’s holistic brand identity, while lighting enhances it.

From liveries to carpets, curtains to antimacassars and button-hole napkins to salt shakers, airlines make use of decorative details to define and differentiate their brand.

“Artistic expression of the brand and the qualities it embodies make an enormous difference in cabin ambience,” says Daniel Baron, CEO of Tokyo-based LIFT Strategic Design. “An example is our economy-class seat cover design for Philippine Airlines. The narrow band of fabric running down the sides of the seat has a diamond pattern that is unmistakably Filipino. It is a small detail, but one that instantly creates meaningful differentiation.”

Luke Hawes, director at PriestmanGoode, London, is also a strong believer in the power of small touches to communicate brand identity. “South African Airways is a great example of subtle branded elements throughout the cabin,” Hawes tells us. “Here, we’ve used neutrals for the larger elements within the cabin, with subtle pops of color in the details, such as literature pockets, brand panels or even stitching details in seats and headrests … Remember that much of what we take in is subconscious, so while passengers may not be directly aware of the details within the cabin, the whole creates a sense of calm and reassurance.”

Living in a Material World

For decades, safety requirements have limited the range of materials that can be installed on board. Thanks to new technologies, that’s changing. PriestmanGoode recently tested the limits of new materials with the introduction of a polystone surface table in the United Polaris cabin. “It’s the first time this material has been used on a commercial aircraft,” says Hawes. “It allows us to create the look of marble, but with less weight, as well as facilitated maintenance. The result is a luxurious feel that ties in with what premium passengers would expect from their everyday environments, whether at home or in bars, restaurants or hotels.”

Hawes believes that as regulations catch up, we could see a broader range of new materials creating new opportunities for brand differentiation: “An example would be for semi-transparent features, or glass displays. We’re constantly working with suppliers to develop materials for specification though, so it is something we’re actively trying to change.”

Let There Be Light

New lighting systems can dynamically increase the range of design possibilities, even mid-flight, and at no additional cost. “Lighting is a great way to change the environment or place emphasis on certain elements of the cabin, but for optimum brand representation, it should be used in combination with other brand elements throughout the interiors,” explains Hawes.

Lighting can also help address passengers’ desire for greater personalization and increased space. “The combination of lighting effects help to maximize the feeling of space … whilst offering more options for customization,” says Hawes. “The Airspace by Airbus experience, which we worked on with Airbus’ in-house designers, is a great example of creative use of lighting to inject decorative patterns into the aircraft interior at minimal cost.”

Baron agrees that lighting offers airlines many new design possibilities, but says the basics still matter. “Mood lighting has come a long way and is absolutely an essential part of the overall cabin ambience,” he says. “However, it will never negate the visual and tactile qualities of textiles, decorative laminates and hard plastics, with their infinite possibilities in color, finish, pattern and texture. The suppliers are achieving truly phenomenal effects that lighting cannot replace. Brands and cultures are as much about texture as they are about color. The possibilities are endless.”

Marisa Garcia was once locked in a hangar in Oberpfaffenhofen while fine-tuning Gandalf’s new seats. Seriously. The firemen got her out. Writing is less confining, but she has lovely memories of those hands-on days.